Here I begin to share my experiences as a critical explorer of contemporary country music, once again searching for some rubies in the mire so you don’t have to get your feet muddy (in that Georgia clay).
Popular country serves as a mirror for society -a Bud swilling, chaw chewing novel of manners. It’s often a fantastical mirror – nostalgic for a never-was golden era, esteeming cycles of poverty and a lack of education along with a, “what you have is good enough, quit complaining” attitude. A lot of it sounds like the Reagan administration hired and implanted a bunch of secret service songwriters into Nashville studios in order to convince the proletariat of how satisfied they are with their station in life and to not get any fancy ideas.
I am a great lover of a lot of country music and a dabbler in crooning. I am also a great lover of many of the stereotypical accouterments of the country music lifestyle: trucks, dogs, heartbreak, drinking whiskey, sitting by rivers, driving to fields, making large fires, talking about shooting squirrels, cut offs, owning a Don’t-Tread-On-Me flag that is zip-tied to my tent, having a bunch of cattleguard in my basement, knowing the best place in town to buy plywood. There was a moment in my life this summer where I had recently ended a relationship, I owned three undriveable vehicles, and I had a hurt dog who couldn’t eat right. I agree that one of this world’s greatest wonders is a girl putting her bare feet up on the dash of a truck as you drive to that river – I’ll be that girl or I’ll be the one driving, I don’t mind, it’s a fucking fantastic thing. I’m not trying to get all smart and fancy over something that doesn’t “want” to be intellectualized or critically examined. There is some smart country – there used to be more, but when you hear it now it’s more mind-blowing than refreshing – and there is some dumb country, which is country that has an untreated concussion from drunkenly falling into a creek ten years ago. I, however, refuse to believe that I’ll ‘damage’ something by thinking about it, nor do I think it’s simply trash that isn’t worth a second glance, because trash it what tells us who we are. I shall hence examine WHY the good parts of stupid country are good, why the stupid parts are stupid, and how it reflects on our current ideals and anxieties in American society.
There is an east coast/west coast feud occurring in the modern Country Music scene. Zac “Toes-in-the-water-ass-in-the-sand” Brown (of the Zac Brown Band) has made some inflammatory comments maligning the lyrical integrity and spirit of the type of song you’ll easily hear these days when tuning into a top 40 country station . A few of his words, spoken in a radio interview, were as such:
If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up.
Indeed, Zac Brown? Zac, spells your name with a c, wears a beanie constantly and has a round beard, names his own band after himself Brown? Go on, Zac.
If you spent as much self-flagellating time as I do listening to pop-country radio in morning and evening rush hours, you would not only know precisely what brand of dirt road – torn jeans – cold beer song Zac Brown was alluding to, you’d have a hard time narrowing his criticism down to any specific number. If I run through a list in my head of the top ten hooks I could hear every day on 99.5 The Wolf (owOOOO) or 98.7 The Bull (stay tuned at 5:00 for our Ninety-minute BULL RIDE), I can pretty immediately conjure the following phrases and their melodic counterparts in my head: “jeans you cut just right,” “whats left of them jeans,” “jeans your mama never patched,” “feet up on the dash,” “Light up the bonfire, call the girls,” “cold beer pressed against your red dress,” “cruisin down red dirt roads,” you get the idea. All those beers, by the way, are going to be consumed at the end of a dirt road, possibly near a river among friends, or perhaps there will be a bit of “stealing away in to the moonlight” with one special gal and a box of miller lite and her cut offs and a tackle box, past a corn field and out of sight, or, once again, next to a river. Not in itself a bad thing, by any means.
I’ll ask you at this point to please note that Zac Brown is the man who has brought us the great treasure of a song: “Chicken Fried,” which extols the virtues of life’s simple pleasures – “I like my chicken: fried,” a “pair of jeans that fit just right,” a “cold beer on a friday night,” the “radio ooooooon.” He carries on to mention home-made wine, love in a woman’s eyes, the sun rise, not caring about the price tag on your clothes, pecan pie, sweet tea – all of which I can get behind with absolutely no sense of irony, despite a slight annoyance at his lazy rhymes. He loses me in a balladeering breakdown, however, when he suddenly drops in the stars and stripes, men in uniform (the ones who sacrifiiiice) and God. Not only does this ruin my sense of belonging in the song’s homey landscape, it doesn’t jive at all with the previous conceit. The song’s A and B parts praise simple and experiential pleasures, that, while fleeting, create a quiet sense of peace in life. The fact that they are easy to come by increases rather than detracts from their value. Stars and stripes, god, and sacrificial soldiers really have nothing to do with the stop-to-smell-the-roses aura of eating chicken (fried) and noting how great your pants feel. False freedom, flag blindness and idol worship are concepts, not tangible, touchable and tastable moments. Indeed, they’re complicated and problematic concepts from which you perhaps abstractly benefit and are abstractly harmed, but which cause you to feel nothing directly.
(In “Chicken Fried,” Brown mentions jeans, driving with the radio on (assumed to be in a truck w/ a tailgate?) girls, and hanging out watching the sun rise by a Georgia pine, which is sort of like moonlight).
In the interview, Brown continued to belabor his point so we could not mistake it:
I love Luke Bryan and he’s had some great songs, but this new song is the worst song I’ve ever heard . . . I know Luke, he’s a friend. ‘[That’s] My Kinda Night’ is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. I see it being commercially successful in what is called country music these days, but I also feel like that the people deserve something better than that. Country fans and country listeners deserve to have something better than that, a song that really has something to say, something that makes you feel something. Good music makes you feel something.
This is almost too good to be true. “That’s My Kind of Night,” by Luke “Corn Makes the Whiskey” Bryan (whose band is, I’m so sorry, not called”The Luke Bryan Band” – they aren’t called anything!) describes a “country style” date night in which Luke’s character spots a girl whom all the other boys might like to take “down town” but who HE can tell would be the kind who likes to go “way out,” (way: opposite of down, out= opposite of town??) where they will be “floatin’ down the FLINT RIVER” where he’ll catch them up a little “CATFISH DINNER” and then proceed to sound (??) “like a winner” when he manages to “lay you down and love you right.” It’s by no means NOT a terrible song. It is, in fact, terrible. I don’t know if it’s the WORST song I’ve ever heard – it certainly is, in my scaling grades, not even nearly the most “shameless” (that title currently goes to Blake Shelton’s glorious “Boys Round Here”).
It contains lyrics that reference one of the great controversies of modern country – giving way to the influence of “hard rock” and “hip-hop and rap” (noting, of course, that I think there’s a wide variance in what is being classified as “hard rock” and “hip hop and rap,”also, I apologize but there’s no way I can ever write the phrase “hard rock” without using quotation marks because it just makes me think of Tipper Gore and Metallica and the Nevermind cover and childhood). Luke says:
Might sit down on my diamond plate tailgate
Put in my country rock hip-hop mixtape
Little Conway, a little T-Pain, might just make it rain
A ha! Let in the new era. Conway and T-Pain? Together?? This juxtaposition caused a bit of a stir among online county lyrics website commentators even before Brown’s eponymous words. “Conway compared to T-Pain?” bemoaned one. “He must be rolling in his grave!”
Because they didn’t want to be disrespectfully original, I suppose.
Of course, nobody is even comparing Conway and T-Pain at this point, at all. Luke is simply saying that he enjoys BOTH country and hip-hop, and has a mix tape for driving that includes both styles. Is it so revolutionary to point that out? Is this all because of Kid Rock? Why does Zac Brown hate this song so much, but like his chicken fried? What the hell is going on here?
This niche argument (DOES ‘RAP‘ have a place in country music?? Should the two misunderstood outcast genres – veering steadily inward toward a placid, pop plain of watery sentiments and repetitive droning beats and lazy misogyny – grasp hands gravely at the edge?) falls into the larger “crisis” in contemporary country. Basically, it boils down to an imagined morning radio conversation like this:
Brady “The Brum Bucket” Hastings: Now, she seems like a perfectly nice young girl and all, but I just don’t think Taylor Swift is country!
Chowdy-Chow-Chow Roger: You know what, I’m tired of this! What do expect then? I don’t care if she’s from Texas or Minnesota!
Sue: I LIKE Taylor Swift, now, all you are all haters!
Brady “The Brum Bucket” Hastings: Now I didn’t say she wasn’t a great American.
Anyways, it’s hard to make up patter when the patter of these hosts is always so shitty. But they say, “what is country, is that country?” “No, is THAT country?” Is it based on geographical location – not where you live, but where you are from? What if you are from the Boondocks, but it’s the boondocks of, like, Vermont, instead of Kentucky? What if you are from Kentucky but don’t have twang? What if you are from CANADA but DO have twang? What if your song is too slow/fast? Are the instruments right? Is there too much drums? Are they singing about the right thing? The wrong thing? Shania Twain grew up poor in Canada. But then she wore leopard print? The nineties were a strange time. Is everybody still white?
It doesn’t get far, and it circles around the drain of this problem: We KNOW that some of these things aren’t “right”and they don’t sound like what we “want” country to sound like, but we also actually don’t know what country is, nor can we articulate it. Who are we and what is our life? Are we not thinking very hard? Why do we work here? What is any genre?
And why does writing songs about these simple notions that we want to love feel so hollow?
To illustrate why, I’ll first direct you to a summary list of titles of Luke Bryan songs:
“Crash My Party” –
“Country Girl (shake it for me” –
“Dunk on You” –
“Rain is a Good Thing” –
“Someone Else Calling You Baby”
“Muckalee Creek Water”
“Drinkin’ Beer and Wastin’ Bullets”
“Take my Drunk Ass Home”
“What Country Is” (maybe answer my questions here??)
“We Rode in Trucks”
“You Don’t Know Jack”
I could go on forever just listing his songs. You poor, poor dear, Luke Bryan!
Except for a particular number called “Sic ‘Em on a Chicken”, Zac Brown’s catalog fails in the department of unimaginative, derivatively derivative and deeply pleasurable song titles.
Does Luke Bryan take himself seriously? No. No one sings a song called “Take my drunk ass home “and takes themselves seriously. He’s a caricature of a perhaps fading moment in pop country, but his hollow chicken cut-offs trash is still far more palatable than the beanie wearing, hookless, soulless, lord of blandness, Zac Brown. It wasn’t wrong to criticize his basically monotone, assembly line from 1999 ode to … I’m not even sure what – not giving a damn? Not thinking too hard? Catfish dinner? A lackluster attempt to say “Bubba Sparks” three times into the mirror in a dark bathroom and watch the ghost of Fiddle Rap spit Chew into your ears?
Luke Bryan’s ideal catfish dinner flint river utopian escapade is eviscerated; it’s been disemboweled, it’s an empty chest cavity next to a scattered pile of broken video lottery machines and food stamp debit cards. But his image is a tidy cardboard cut-out next to some ladies in cowboy heels drinking pink lemonade shooters (that’s a drink that I did not know existed before country music told me that’s what girls drink these days).
Zac Brown, sadly, can’t tell the difference.
As of today, Luke Bryan has yet to respond to the criticisms.